A visit to a former pharmacy in Krakow, Poland, became a poignant moment of a trip with my husband to Eastern Europe.
I was accompanying him on a concert tour with the men's choir from Beth Sholom in Elkins Park, and visiting the Krakow ghetto, which the Nazis established in March 1941 in a city where the Jewish community dates from the 15th century.
The only non-Jewish resident there had been a pharmacist, Tadeusz Pankiewicz. Jews would come to the Eagle Pharmacy for medications and messages; some evidence suggests that the pharmacy was part of the Polish underground. In 1993, the building was turned into a National Memorial Museum and now contains pictures of the roundup and deportation of Krakow's Jews.
Outside is Plac Zgody, now called the Ghetto Heroes Square, and known as Umschlagplatz by the Nazis. It was where the Jews assembled before being transported to death camps. The Podgorze Ghetto, as it was known, was liquidated on March 13, 1943. The Jews able to work were sent to the Plaszow forced-labor camp (featured in the film Schindler's List), and the rest were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
In 2005, a memorial was constructed at this site. It consists of 33 oversized and very large empty chairs and 37 smaller chairs. This stark permanent reminder of emptiness recalls the people who were never to return.
One letter in the pharmacy captured my attention. Dated May 1993, it was sent from New South Wales, Australia. It read:
"Enclosed please find a modest cheque for $250. Please accept it in the spirit in which it has been sent to you and consider it as a symbolic payment for the 3 pills of Panflavin, which you gave me in 1943 and for which I could not pay you then. I consider it a great honour to have had the privilege of sharing your warm hand. In fact, I have never forgotten your kindness for all those years. . . . "
It was signed Martin Baral.
Upon arriving home, I decided to learn more about the letter's author. I Googled his name and found a Web site of Baral family pictures. I discovered that Martin was a child while in the ghetto. He and his family escaped and spent the rest of the war hiding in Budapest. They moved to Israel and eventually settled in Australia. I sent an e-mail to the Webmaster asking if this Martin Baral was the same person whose letter was in the Eagle Pharmacy.
I quickly received a reply from Martin Baral's son. He said Martin did not return to Krakow for 50 years. Once there, he immediately looked up the pharmacist who had saved his life. He found Tadeusz destitute and in ill health. He emptied his pockets to help this noble man. Unfortunately, Tadeusz died later that year.
My emotional journey to Eastern Europe was not over until I returned home and was able to learn the fate of Martin Baral. Sometimes one must become an armchair traveler in order to complete an overseas journey.